Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Book Six

DoÑA Isabella

1

Don Antonio

Bishop Latour had one very keen worldly ambition; to build in Santa Fé a cathedral which would be worthy of a setting naturally beautiful. As he cherished this wish and meditated upon it, he came to feel that such a building might be a continuation of himself and his purpose, a physical body full of his aspirations after he had passed from the scene. Early in his administration he began setting aside something from his meagre resources for a cathedral fund. In this he was assisted by certain of the rich Mexican rancheros, but by no one so much as by Don Antonio Olivares.

Antonio Olivares was the most intelligent and prosperous member of a large family of brothers and cousins, and he was for that time and place a man of wide experience, a man of the world. He had spent the greater part of his life in New Orleans and El Paso del Norte, but he returned to live in Santa Fé several years after Bishop Latour took up his duties there. He brought with him his American wife and a wagon train of furniture, and settled down to spend his declining years in the old ranch house just east of the town where he was born and had grown up. He was then a man of sixty. In early manhood he had lost his first wife; after he went to New Orleans he had married a second time, a Kentucky girl who had grown up among her relatives in Louisiana. She was pretty and accomplished, had been educated at a French convent, and had done much to Europeanize her husband. The refinement of his dress and manners, and his lavish style of living, provoked half-contemptuous envy among his brothers and their friends.

Olivares’s wife, Doña Isabella, was a devout Catholic, and at their house the French priests were always welcome and were most cordially entertained. The Señora Olivares had made a pleasant place of the rambling adobe building, with its great court-yard and gateway, carved joists and beams, fine herring-bone ceilings and snug fire-places. She was a gracious hostess, and though no longer very young, she was still attractive to the eye; a slight woman, spirited, quick in movement, with a delicate blonde complexion which she had successfully guarded in trying climates, and fair hair — a little silvered, and perhaps worn in too many puffs and ringlets for the sharpening outline of her face. She spoke French well, Spanish lamely, played the harp, and sang agreeably.

Certainly it was a great piece of luck for Father Latour and Father Vaillant, who lived so much among peons and Indians and rough frontiersmen, to be able to converse in their own tongue now and then with a cultivated woman; to sit by that hospitable fireside, in rooms enriched by old mirrors and engravings and upholstered chairs, where the windows had clean curtains, and the sideboard and cupboards were stocked with plate and Belgian glass. It was refreshing to spend an evening with a couple who were interested in what was going on in the outside world, to eat a good dinner and drink good wine, and listen to music. Father Joseph, that man of inconsistencies, had a pleasing tenor voice, true though not strong. Madame Olivares liked to sing old French songs with him. She was a trifle vain, it must be owned, and when she sang at all, insisted upon singing in three languages, never forgetting her husband’s favourites, “La Paloma” and “La Golondrina,” and “My Nelly Was A Lady.” The Negro melodies of Stephen Foster had already travelled to the frontier, going along the river highways, not in print, but passed on from one humble singer to another.

Don Antonio was a large man, heavy, full at the belt, a trifle bald, and very slow of speech. But his eyes were lively, and the yellow spark in them was often most perceptible when he was quite silent. It was interesting to observe him after dinner, settled in one of his big chairs from New Orleans, a cigar between his long golden-brown fingers, watching his wife at her harp.

There was gossip about the lady in Santa Fé, of course, since she had retained her beautiful complexion and her husband’s devoted regard for so many years. The Americans and the Olivares brothers said she dressed much too youthfully, which was perhaps true, and that she had lovers in New Orleans and El Paso del Norte. Her nephews-inlaw went so far as to declare that she was enamoured of the Mexican boy the Olivares had brought up from San Antonio to play the banjo for them, — they both loved music, and this boy, Pablo, was a magician with his instrument. All sorts of stories went out from the kitchen; that Doña Isabella had a whole chamber full of dresses so grand that she never wore them here at all; that she took gold from her husband’s pockets and hid it under the floor of her room; that she gave him love potions and herb-teas to increase his ardour. This gossip did not mean that her servants were disloyal, but rather that they were proud of their mistress.

Olivares, who read the newspapers, though they were weeks old when he got them, who liked cigars better than cigarettes, and French wine better than whisky, had little in common with his younger brothers. Next to his old friend Manuel Chavez, the two French priests were the men in Santa Fé whose company he most enjoyed, and he let them see it. He was a man who cherished his friends. He liked to call at the Bishop’s house to advise him about the care of his young orchard, or to leave a bottle of home-made cherry brandy for Father Joseph. It was Olivares who presented Father Latour with the silver hand-basin and pitcher and toilet accessories which gave him so much satisfaction all the rest of his life. There were good silversmiths among the Mexicans of Santa Fé, and Don Antonio had his own toilet-set copied in hammered silver for his friend. Doña Isabella once remarked that her husband always gave Father Vaillant something good for the palate, and Father Latour something good for the eye.

This couple had one child, a daughter, the Señorita Inez, born long ago and still unmarried. Indeed, it was generally understood that she would never marry. Though she had not taken the veil, her life was that of a nun. She was very plain and had none of her mother’s social graces, but she had a beautiful contralto voice. She sang in the Cathedral choir in New Orleans, and taught singing in a convent there. She came to visit her parents only once after they settled in Santa Fé, and she was a somewhat sombre figure in that convivial household. Doña Isabella seemed devotedly attached to her, but afraid of displeasing her. While Inez was there, her mother dressed very plainly, pinned back the little curls that hung over her right ear, and the two women went to church together all day long.

Antonio Olivares was deeply interested in the Bishop’s dream of a cathedral. For one thing, he saw that Father Latour had set his heart on building one, and Olivares was the sort of man who liked to help a friend accomplish the desire of his heart. Furthermore, he had a deep affection for his native town, he had travelled and seen fine churches, and he wished there might some day be one in Santa Fé. Many a night he and Father Latour talked of it by the fire; discussed the site, the design, the building stone, the cost and the grave difficulties of raising money. It was the Bishop’s hope to begin work upon the building in 1860, ten years after his appointment to the Bishopric. One night, at a long-remembered New Year’s party in his house, Olivares announced in the presence of his guests that before the new year was gone he meant to give to the Cathedral fund a sum sufficient to enable Father Latour to carry out his purpose.

That supper party at the Olivares’ was memorable because of this pledge, and because it marked a parting of old friends. Doña Isabella was entertaining the officers at the Post, two of whom had received orders to leave Santa Fé. The popular Commandant was called back to Washington, the young lieutenant of cavalry, an Irish Catholic, lately married and very dear to Father Latour, was to be sent farther west. (Before the next New Year’s Day came round he was killed in Indian warfare on the plains of Arizona.)

But that night the future troubled nobody; the house was full of light and music, the air warm with that simple hospitality of the frontier, where people dwell in exile, far from their kindred, where they lead rough lives and seldom meet together for pleasure. Kit Carson, who greatly admired Madame Olivares, had come the two days’ journey from Taos to be present that night, and brought along his gentle half-breed daughter, lately home from a convent school in St. Louis. On this occasion he wore a handsome buckskin coat, embroidered in silver, with brown velvet cuffs and collar. The officers from the Fort were in dress uniform, the host as usual wore a broadcloth frock-coat. His wife was in a hoop-skirt, a French dress from New Orleans, all covered with little garlands of pink satin roses. The military ladies came out to the Olivares place in an army wagon, to keep their satin shoes from the mud. The Bishop had put on his violet vest, which he seldom wore, and Father Vaillant had donned a fresh new cassock, made by the loving hands of his sister Philomène, in Riom.

Father Latour had used to feel a little ashamed that Joseph kept his sister and her nuns so busy making cassocks and vestments for him; but the last time he was in France he came to see all this in another light. When he was visiting Mother Philomène’s convent, one of the younger Sisters had confided to him what an inspiration it was to them, living in retirement, to work for the faraway missions. She told him also how precious to them were Father Vaillant’s long letters, letters in which he told his sister of the country, the Indians, the pious Mexican women, the Spanish martyrs of old. These letters, she said, Mother Philomène read aloud in the evening. The nun took Father Latour to a window that jutted out and looked up the narrow street to where the wall turned at an angle, cutting off further view. “Look,” she said, “after the Mother has read us one of those letters from her brother, I come and stand in this alcove and look up our little street with its one lamp, and just beyond the turn there, is New Mexico; all that he has written us of those red deserts and blue mountains, the great plains and the herds of bison, and the canyons more profound than our deepest mountain gorges. I can feel that I am there, my heart beats faster, and it seems but a moment until the retiring-bell cuts short my dreams.” The Bishop went away believing that it was good for these Sisters to work for Father Joseph.

To-night, when Madame Olivares was complimenting Father Vaillant on the sheen of his poplin and velvet, for some reason Father Latour recalled that moment with the nun in her alcove window, her white face, her burning eyes, and sighed.

After supper was over and the toasts had been drunk, the boy Pablo was called in to play for the company while the gentlemen smoked. The banjo always remained a foreign instrument to Father Latour; he found it more than a little savage. When this strange yellow boy played it, there was softness and languor in the wire strings — but there was also a kind of madness; the recklessness, the call of wild countries which all these men had felt and followed in one way or another. Through clouds of cigar smoke, the scout and the soldiers, the Mexican rancheros and the priests, sat silently watching the bent head and crouching shoulders of the banjo player, and his seesawing yellow hand, which sometimes lost all form and became a mere whirl of matter in motion, like a patch of sand-storm.

Observing them thus in repose, in the act of reflection, Father Latour was thinking how each of these men not only had a story, but seemed to have become his story. Those anxious, far-seeing blue eyes of Carson’s, to whom could they belong but to a scout and trail-breaker? Don Manuel Chavez, the handsomest man of the company, very elegant in velvet and broadcloth, with delicately cut, disdainful features, — one had only to see him cross the room, or to sit next him at dinner, to feel the electric quality under his cold reserve; the fierceness of some embitterment, the passion for danger.

Chavez boasted his descent from two Castilian knights who freed the city of Chavez from the Moors in 1160. He had estates in the Pecos and in the San Mateo mountains, and a house in Santa Fé, where he hid himself behind his beautiful trees and gardens. He loved the natural beauties of his country with a passion, and he hated the Americans who were blind to them. He was jealous of Carson’s fame as an Indian-fighter, declaring that he had seen more Indian warfare before he was twenty than Carson would ever see. He was easily Carson’s rival as a pistol shot. With the bow and arrow he had no rival; he had never been beaten. No Indian had ever been known to shoot an arrow as far as Chavez. Every year parties of Indians came up to the Villa to shoot with him for wagers. His house and stables were full of trophies. He took a cool pleasure in stripping the Indians of their horses or silver or blankets, or whatever they had put up on their man. He was proud of his skill with Indian weapons; he had acquired it in a hard school.

When he was a lad of sixteen Manuel Chavez had gone out with a party of Mexican youths to hunt Navajos. In those days, before the American occupation, “hunting Navajos” needed no pretext, it was a form of sport. A company of Mexicans would ride west to the Navajo country, raid a few sheep camps, and come home bringing flocks and ponies and a bunch of prisoners, for every one of whom they received a large bounty from the Mexican Government. It was with such a raiding party that the boy Chavez went out for spoil and adventure.

Finding no Indians abroad, the young Mexicans pushed on farther than they had intended. They did not know that it was the season when all the roving Navajo bands gather at the Canyon de Chelly for their religious ceremonies, and they rode on impetuously until they came out upon the rim of that mysterious and terrifying canyon itself, then swarming with Indians. They were immediately surrounded, and retreat was impossible. They fought on the naked sandstone ledges that overhang that gulf. Don José Chavez, Manuel’s older brother, was captain of the party, and was one of the first to fall. The company of fifty were slaughtered to a man. Manuel was the fifty-first, and he survived. With seven arrow wounds, and one shaft clear through his body, he was left for dead in a pile of corpses.

That night, while the Navajos were celebrating their victory, the boy crawled along the rocks until he had high boulders between him and the enemy, and then started eastward on foot. It was summer, and the heat of that red sandstone country is intense. His wounds were on fire. But he had the superb vitality of early youth. He walked for two days and nights without finding a drop of water, covering a distance of sixty odd miles, across the plain, across the mountain, until he came to the famous spring on the other side, where Fort Defiance was afterward built. There he drank and bathed his wounds and slept. He had had no food since the morning before the fight; near the spring he found some large cactus plants, and slicing away the spines with his hunting-knife, he filled his stomach with the juicy pulp.

From here, still without meeting a human creature, he stumbled on until he reached the San Mateo mountain, north of Laguna. In a mountain valley he came upon a camp of Mexican shepherds, and fell unconscious. The shepherds made a litter of saplings and their sheepskin coats and carried him into the village of Cebolleta, where he lay delirious for many days. Years afterward, when Chavez came into his inheritance, he bought that beautiful valley in the San Mateo mountain where he had sunk unconscious under two noble oak trees. He build a house between those twin oaks, and made a fine estate there.

Never reconciled to American rule, Chavez lived in seclusion when he was in Santa Fé. At the first rumour of an Indian outbreak, near or far, he rode off to add a few more scalps to his record. He distrusted the new Bishop because of his friendliness toward Indians and Yankees. Besides, Chavez was a Martínez man. He had come here to-night only in compliment to Señora Olivares; he hated to spend an evening among American uniforms.

When the banjo player was exhausted, Father Joseph said that as for him, he would like a little drawing-room music, and he led Madame Olivares to her harp. She was very charming at her instrument; the pose suited her tip-tilted canary head, and her little foot and white arms.

This was the last time the Bishop heard her sing “La Paloma” for her admiring husband, whose eyes smiled at her even when his heavy face seemed asleep.

Olivares died on Septuagesima Sunday — fell over by his own fire-place when he was lighting the candles after supper, and the banjo boy was sent running for the Bishop. Before midnight two of the Olivares brothers, half drunk with brandy and excitement, galloped out of Santa Fé, on the road to Albuquerque, to employ an American lawyer.

2

The Lady

Antonio Olivares’s funeral was the most solemn and magnificent ever seen in Santa Fé, but Father Vaillant was not there. He was off on a long missionary journey to the south, and did not reach home until Madame Olivares had been a widow for some weeks. He had scarcely got off his riding-boots when he was called into Father Latour’s study to see her lawyer.

Olivares had entrusted the management of his affairs to a young Irish Catholic, Boyd O’Reilly, who had come out from Boston to practise law in the new Territory. There were no steel safes in Santa Fé at that time, but O’Reilly had kept Olivares’s will in his strong-box. The document was brief and clear: Antonio’s estate amounted to about two hundred thousand dollars in American money (a considerable fortune in those days). The income therefrom was to be enjoyed by “my wife, Isabella Olivares, and her daughter, Inez Olivares,” during their lives, and after their decease his property was to go to the Church, to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The codicil, in favour of the Cathedral fund, had, unfortunately, never been added to the will.

The young lawyer explained to Father Vaillant that the Olivares brothers had retained the leading legal firm of Albuquerque and were contesting the will. Their point of attack was that Señorita Inez was too old to be the daughter of the Señora Olivares. Don Antonio had been a promiscuous lover in his young days, and his brothers held that Inez was the offspring of some temporary attachment, and had been adopted by Doña Isabella. O’Reilly had sent to New Orleans for an attested copy of the marriage record of the Olivares couple, and the birth certificate of Señorita Inez. But in Kentucky, where the Señora was born, no birth records were kept; there was no document to prove the age of Isabella Olivares, and she could not be persuaded to admit her true age. It was generally believed in Santa Fé that she was still in her early forties, in which case she would not have been more than six or eight years old at the date when Inez was born. In reality the lady was past fifty, but when O’Reilly had tried to persuade her to admit this in court, she simply refused to listen to him. He begged the Bishop and the Vicar to use their influence with her to this end.

Father Latour shrank from interfering in so delicate a matter, but Father Vaillant saw at once that it was their plain duty to protect the two women and, at the same time, secure the rights of the Propaganda. Without more ado he threw on his old cloak over his cassock, and the three men set off through the red mud to the Olivares’ hacienda in the hills east of the town.

Father Joseph had not been to the Olivares’ house since the night of the New Year’s party, and he sighed as he approached the place, already transformed by neglect. The big gate was propped open by a pole because the iron hook was gone, the court-yard was littered with rags and meat bones which the dogs had carried there and no one had taken away. The big parrot cage, hanging in the portale, was filthy, and the birds were squalling. When O’Reilly rang the bell at the outer gate, Pablo, the banjo player, came running out with tousled hair and a dirty shirt to admit the visitors. He took them into the long living-room, which was empty and cold, the fire-place dark, the hearth unswept. Chairs and window-sills were deep in red dust, the glass panes dirty, and streaked as if by tear-drops. On the writing-table were empty bottles and sticky glasses and cigar ends. In one corner stood the harp in its green cover.

Pablo asked the Fathers to be seated. His mistress was staying in bed, he said, and the cook had burnt her hand, and the other maids were lazy. He brought wood and laid a fire.

After some time, Doña Isabella entered, dressed in heavy mourning, her face very white against the black, and her eyes red. The curls about her neck and ears were pale, too — quite ashen.

After Father Vaillant had greeted her and spoken consoling words, the young lawyer began once more gently to explain to her the difficulties that confronted them, and what they must do to defeat the action of the Olivares family. She sat submissively, touching her eyes and nose with her little lace handkerchief, and clearly not even trying to understand a word of what he said to her.

Father Joseph soon lost patience and himself approached the widow. “You understand, my child,” he began briskly, “that your husband’s brothers are determined to disregard his wishes, to defraud you and your daughter, and, eventually, the Church. This is no time for childish vanity. To prevent this outrage to your husband’s memory, you must satisfy the court that you are old enough to be the mother of Mademoiselle Inez. You must resolutely declare your true age; fifty-three, is it not?”

Doña Isabella became pallid with fright. She shrank into one end of the deep sofa, but her blue eyes focused and gathered light, as she became intensely, rigidly animated in her corner, — her back against the wall, as it were.

“Fifty-three!” she cried in a voice of horrified amazement. “Why, I never heard of anything so outrageous! I was forty-two my last birthday. It was in December, the fourth of December. If Antonio were here, he would tell you! And he wouldn’t let you scold me and talk about business to me, either, Father Joseph. He never let anybody talk about business to me!” She hid her face in her little handkerchief and began to cry.

Father Latour checked his impetuous Vicar, and sat down on the sofa beside Madame Olivares, feeling very sorry for her and speaking very gently. “Forty-two to your friends, dear Madame Olivares, and to the world. In heart and face you are younger than that. But to the Law and the Church there must be a literal reckoning. A formal statement in court will not make you any older to your friends; it will not add one line to your face. A woman, you know, is as old as she looks.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say, Bishop Latour,” the lady quavered, looking up at him with tear-bright eyes. “But I never could hold up my head again. Let the Olivares have that old money. I don’t want it.”

Father Vaillant sprang up and glared down at her as if he could put common sense into her drooping head by the mere intensity of his gaze. “Four hundred thousand pesos, Señora Isabella!” he cried. “Ease and comfort for you and your daughter all the rest of your lives. Would you make your daughter a beggar? The Olivares will take everything.”

“I can’t help it about Inez,” she pleaded. “Inez means to go into the convent anyway. And I don’t care about the money. Ah, mon père, je voudrais mieux être jeune et mendiante, que n’être que vieille et riche, certes, oui!”

Father Joseph caught her icy cold hand. “And have you a right to defraud the Church of what is left to it in your trust? Have you thought of the consequences to yourself of such a betrayal?”

Father Latour glanced sternly at his Vicar. “Assez,” he said quietly. He took the little hand Father Joseph had released and bent over it, kissing it respectfully. “We must not press this any further. We must leave this to Madame Olivares and her own conscience. I believe, my daughter, you will come to realize that this sacrifice of your vanity would be for your soul’s peace. Looking merely at the temporal aspect of the case, you would find poverty hard to bear. You would have to live upon the Olivares’s charity, would you not? I do not wish to see this come about. I have a selfish interest; I wish you to be always your charming self and to make a little poésie in life for us here. We have not much of that.”

Madame Olivares stopped crying. She raised her head and sat drying her eyes. Suddenly she took hold of one of the buttons on the Bishop’s cassock and began twisting it with nervous fingers.

“Father,” she said timidly, “what is the youngest I could possibly be, to be Inez’s mother?”

The Bishop could not pronounce the verdict; he hesitated, flushed, then passed it on to O’Reilly with an open gesture of his fine white hand.

“Fifty-two, Señora Olivares,” said the young man respectfully. “If I can get you to admit that, and stick to it, I feel sure we will win our case.”

“Very well, Mr. O’Reilly.” She bowed her head. As her visitors rose, she sat looking down at the dust-covered rugs. “Before everybody!” she murmured, as if to herself.

When they were tramping home, Father Joseph said that, as for him, he would rather combat the superstitions of a whole Indian pueblo than the vanity of one white woman.

“And I would rather do almost anything than go through such a scene again,” said the Bishop with a frown. “I don’t think I ever assisted at anything so cruel.”

Boyd O’Reilly defeated the Olivares brothers and won his case. The Bishop would not go to the court hearing, but Father Vaillant was there, standing in the malodorous crowd (there were no chairs in the court room), and his knees shook under him when the young lawyer, with the fierceness born of fright, poked his finger at his client and said:

“Señora Olivares, you are fifty-two years of age, are you not?”

Madame Olivares was swathed in mourning, her face a streak of shadowed white between folds of black veil.

“Yes, sir.” The crape barely let it through.

The night after the verdict was pronounced, Manuel Chavez, with several of Antonio’s old friends, called upon the widow to congratulate her. Word of their intention had gone about the town and put others in the mood to call at a house that had been closed to visitors for so long. A considerable company gathered there that evening, including some of the military people, and several hereditary enemies of the Olivares brothers.

The cook, stimulated by the sight of the long sala full of people once more, hastily improvised a supper. Pablo put on a white shirt and a velvet jacket, and began to carry up from the cellar his late master’s best whisky and sherry, and quarts of champagne. (The Mexicans are very fond of sparkling wines. Only a few years before this, an American trader who had got into serious political trouble with the Mexican military authorities in Santa Fé, regained their confidence and friendship by presenting them with a large wagon shipment of champagne — three thousand, three hundred and ninety-two bottles, indeed!)

This hospitable mood came upon the house suddenly, nothing had been prepared beforehand. The wine glasses were full of dust, but Pablo wiped them out with the shirt he had just taken off, and without instructions from anyone he began gliding about with a tray full of glasses, which he afterward refilled many times, taking his station at the sideboard. Even Doña Isabella drank a little champagne; when she had sipped one glass with the young Georgia captain, she could not refuse to take another with their nearest neighbour, Ferdinand Sanchez, always a true friend to her husband. Everyone was gay, the servants and the guests, everything sparkled like a garden after a shower.

Father Latour and Father Vaillant, having heard nothing of this spontaneous gathering of friends, set off at eight o’clock to make a call upon the brave widow. When they entered the court-yard, they were astonished to hear music within, and to see light streaming from the long row of windows behind the portale. Without stopping to knock, they opened the door into the sala. Many candles were burning. Señors were standing about in long frock-coats buttoned over full figures. O’Reilly and a group of officers from the Fort surrounded the sideboard, where Pablo, with a white napkin wrapped showily about his wrist, was pouring champagne. From the other end of the room sounded the high tinkle of the harp, and Doña Isabella’s voice:

“Listen to the mocking-bird,

Listen to the mocking-bird!”

The priests waited in the doorway until the song was finished, then went forward to pay their respects to the hostess. She was wearing the unrelieved white that grief permitted, and the yellow curls were bobbing as of old — three behind her right ear, one over either temple, and a little row across the back of her neck. As she saw the two black figures approaching, she dropped her arms from the harp, took her satin toe from the pedal, and rose, holding out a hand to each. Her eyes were bright, and her face beamed with affection for her spiritual fathers. But her greeting was a playful reproach, uttered loud enough to be heard above the murmur of conversing groups:

“I never shall forgive you, Father Joseph, nor you either, Bishop Latour, for that awful lie you made me tell in court about my age!”

The two churchmen bowed amid laughter and applause.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30